There's vomit on his sweater already, Mom's spaghetti
He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready"
- Eminem, "Lose Yourself"
I am standing in a crowd of almost 1,000, and I AM nervous as the first song of the race, the song I've quoted above, pumps through my head.
The air has a bite to it, but it's a welcome chill, as I know what's coming.
Well, sorta. I'm about to run Sunday's Horsetooth Half Marathon, perhaps the toughest in Colorado. I had many offers to run the course before today's race, and I turned them all down. I wanted to experience it for the first time on my own. I am running this race for the challenge, yes, but also the scenery - the course runs over a huge, sparking reservoir surrounded by mountains - and I want to see it all with virgin eyes. It, like many first times, is more special that way.
Still, man. Really? I look up and up and up and my eyes still can't see the top. I knew this race was steep, but, man, really? I've climbed a few 14ers that weren't as steep as this.
I wasn't planning on running a great time. I was hoping for under two hours. I've got another half marathon in two weeks, the Colorado Half, a huge yearly event, and I didn't want to blow it all on this one.
That goes out the window as Eminem pumps through my head. A race, any race, should not be taken for granted. They're special, almost magical rewards for months of running through the pain and drudgery and bad weather of the grind of training. You finally get to see if it's all paid off.
The song's working. I'm focused for what's ahead. The gun sounds and I'm off.
I'm panting almost right away. Jesus, this road's steep. Sweat runs down my forehead, even with the ballcap I've got on, and at one point, I walk, wondering if I'll go just as fast as running. Running is faster, I discover, but not by much.
By the time the two miles is over, my shin tightens up, a recurring problem, and my thighs are burning and my calves are yelping. But we've crested the "mountain," and the worst part's over. Only 11 miles - and three long hills - to go.
I keep running faster than I want to. Running requires more willpower than just pushing through the pain. You've also got to hold back no matter how good you feel, and on race day, usually you feel wonderful. You're pumped, you're rested and all those lingering aches are gone or at least buried under adrenaline and joy and the time off you take before the day of reckoning.
On the last hill, around mile 6, I pass many people. I love passing people on hills because it's such a pick-me-up.
In every race, there comes a time when the exhaustion takes over, and then it's just all guts. Sure enough, around mile 10, the weariness elbows me in the ribs, then kicks me in the butt, and finally tackles me, and I've got three miles to go. A 5K. At this point, the course winds through a concrete trail. Concrete, quite frankly, sucks. There's no give, and after a while, it feels like someone is pounding on me with a hammer. I run on the soft trail occasionally, but there's no "spring" on that one, and so I'm constantly switching back and forth.
Really, what I'm trying to do is get comfortable, but I feel like a prisoner trying to sleep on a stone bed. There's just no more comfort to be had.
At mile 12, my calves start to cramp. We're just not used to running up and down all those steep, punishing hills. I yell, out loud, "No, you've still got one more mile to go!" and a few runners look my way, startled, before smiling. We're all in the same boat now. We all hurt. Many stop to walk a bit before trotting on again. I can't stop. If I do, I don't know if I can start up again.
At mile 13, a crowd cheers my plodding, and I see the finish line. I start to sprint and suddenly I'm there.
The finish line is not my favorite part of the day. It offers the most relief, to be sure, but it's not the best part of the day.
The best part, instead, comes at the beginning, when I'm just about to lose myself in the music, in the moment, in a futile attempt to block out the pain.
This is a tough half marathon, and so most of the people who surround me as I slip on my headphones are real athletes, cut, determined, talented athletes. I overhear them talking about "redshirting" or "track meets" or "scholarships." These exact same people, in other words, who picked me last for just about every game at recess.
I might be a little nervous before these races, and I might need music to get me through the hard parts, and I may not be as talented as them. But I've also got a message for them as well: The guy who they really didn't want on their kickball team is storming up the same hills they are and is, in fact, right on your tail.
Edit: I finished in 1:53, an 8:42-per-mile pace. I finished 300/952.